Unhappier and unhappier

According to data produced by the General Social Survey Americans are getting more miserable.  On a scale between 1 and 3, where 1 represents “not too happy” and 3 means “very happy”,  Americans on average give themselves 2.18.  In 1993 the figure peaked at 2.26.  The downward trend has been confirmed in the latest World Happiness Report, the overall life satisfaction of Americans falling 6% between 2007 and 2018.  Reasons given for the fall include:

  •  Social media:  young people, alone on their phones or computers, watching others who seem  so good looking, apparently successful, earning good money, with plenty of friends.
  • The opioid epidemic
  • The poor state of health of very many Americans, linked with soaring health costs and the sheer frustration of dealing with health insurance companies, whose objective in life seems to be not to pay out.
  • The gig economy and chronic economic insecurity.
  • Wretched housing and lack of local amenities experienced by black people, plus the insecurity caused by guns.
  • The general feeling of helplessness in a society which is dominated by a very rich 1%, the perceived unfairness and the corruption caused by too much money being flung at politicians in return for favours.
  • The catch-22 situation that young people find themselves in – they are told they have to go college or university to get a good job, but in the process acquire huge student debts that often prevent them saving enough to buy their own houses.

In the Republican desperation to reduce taxes and benefits, aimed at the poor, to jthe benefit of their election donors we have got it all wrong.  Society should not be so skewed and so unfair.  We will surely pay for it.


The uses of philosophy

“Vain is the word of a philosopher, by which no mortal suffering is healed.  Just as medicine confers no benefit if it does not drive away bodily disease, so is philosophy useless if it does not drive away the suffering of the mind”.  (from “The Essential Epicurus”, trans. by Eugene O’Connor, Great Books in Philosophy series, quoting Epicurus).

Philosophy, or so it seems, has become a dry pursuit of the meaning of words , and lengthy investigations into the thought of philosophic writers, using long words inaccessible to most people in the street.  This approach to philosophy fails to “ drive away the suffering of the mind”.  On the contrary, it exasperates all those who want to understand, but cannot navigate,  the thicket of words.

What we seek to do here is to take modern issues and try to look at them, as it were, through the eyes of Epicurus.  Although he lived at a time and in a culture difficult for us to appreciate, Epicurus was a pragmatist.  Pleasure and peace of mind were his objectives.  They should be ours as well.

Britain’s land and housing crisis

In England less than 1% of the population – including aristocrats, the royal family and wealthy investors, owns about half the land.  Putting it another way, with a population of about 56 million, half the country belongs to just 25,000 landowners, some of them corporations.  This reflects the chronic inequality of Britain, in contrast to other countries like Germany, France, Scandinavia etc.  (although British inequality is less than that of the United States).  Land is much more expensive than in other countries – it is in short supply.  In 2016 it accounted for half of the country’s net worth, double that of other similar countries.  It was the value of land that caused Britain’s net worth to triple between 1995 and 2017,  giving the landowners huge unearned income gains that far exceeded that of wage or the economic growth.  On top of that the EU farming and forestry subsidies have made existing landowners even more rich, thanks to taxpayer-funded financial aid.   (In 2017 the Queen’s Sandringham estate received  $900,000 in taxpayer aid).

On top of this, big developers are sitting on holdings of land that are supposed to be used for new housing.  But the developers have an incentive to wait as the value of the land continues to rise.  Returns in this way outweigh the uncertainty and hassle of actually having to build anything.  The country is, as a result in a housing crisis.

And then there is another infuriating development over the past decade.  The Ordnance Survey, at the time of the First World War, surveyed every corner of the British Isles for military purposes.  Out of this came wonderful, large scale maps showing public rights of way across private land, everywhere.  Under common law you can walk on these pathways regardless of ownership, and this made England a walkers paradise.  But the Tories privatised the Ordnance Survey, which promptly scrapped a huge proportion of the big-scale walking maps.  Thus , you might have a right to roam, but you can’t find out where they are unless you come across them by accident.  Gradually the public knowledge of where and in what direction the pathways traverse the land is getting lost, and we have a de facto undoing of the common law that has applied since the days of the Anglo Saxons, nearly a thousand years ago.  Thus does the government look after the interests of the landowners (who hated mere citizens and taxpayers walking across their property).  Epicurus would spot my frustration and advise me to chill out and cultivate ataraxia.   But you can see why ataraxia is in as short a  supply as housing for poor people..

Publicly-Funded Superstition

Recently, public activities came to my attention which, given the source, I found both surprising and startling. The publicly-funded Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) – a crown corporation which serves the public as the national broadcaster – is also a platform for superstition; disguised as astrology.

By publishing weekly horoscopes, the CBC – worse than its mere promotion – is perpetuating superstition. In the words of the once Torontonian, Emma Goldman: “Superstition – along with Ignorance and Bigotry – is one of the most sinister and tyrannical rulers on Earth”.

Emma Goldman, like many of humanity’s greatest heroes, was an ordinary person with extraordinary ideas. However, she wasn’t the first to publicly denounce superstition. More than two millennia before Emma, the Sage Epicurus did the same.

Epicurus was famously attributed – by David Hume, among others – with a compelling argument against divine providence; widely known as the problem of evil. Divine providence is really just another form of anthropocentric superstition. Such notions – though, seemingly unique to the human condition – are found universally across cultures. However, significant progress has been made; the geocentric solar system was overthrown and replaced with the heliocentric system, divine creation of human beings – like the genesis account of Adam and Eve – was overthrown and replaced with evolution. The universe turned out to be materialistic and purposeless.

Despite progress, such anthropocentric superstition continues on with, for example, astrology, a pseudoscience – not to be confused with astronomy – that purports special extraterrestrial relationships with earthly human affairs and claims special knowledge concerning the supposed mundane effects on individual lives.

For example, the most recently published CBC horoscope, for the week of April 22nd, 2019, asserts that the changing motion of Pluto will impact your personal life here on Earth and quells fears of this change by then characterizing – if not personifying – the protective nature of Pluto. Personally, I do think Pluto could be protective, indeed, if it intercepts potentially catastrophic asteroids from making impact with Earth.

My main concerns with such instances of publicly-funded superstition, are whether they do more harm than good and how one can possibly justify the perpetuation of societal superstition?

Epicurus thought it’s misguided to approach problems of human suffering without offering any truly beneficial remedy. I’m sympathetic to some astrologers’ horoscopes because I cannot discount the potential for a sort of placebo effect. But some astrologers include lucky numbers in their horoscopes and therefore encourage gambling. Epicurus strongly discouraged leaving our well-being to chance. Epicurus also thought it rather ridiculous to pray or wait for things to happen, especially for things easily within your means of securing for yourself. To me, it does seem tragic to wait for a horoscope to prescribe you a positive outlook. Epicurus kindly encouraged us to never delay for enjoying, as far as I’m aware, our one and only life. Every second is the opportunity of a life time. This sentiment was later echoed by another hero of humanity, Charles Darwin, who wrote to his sister: “a man who dares to waste one hour of time, has not discovered the value of life”.

Here are three more concerns worth sharing: Epicurean philosophy advises against the use of empty words and recommends we call things by their proper name, so, perhaps, half-jokingly, my first concern is whether astrologers have updated their definitions of planets to now exclude Pluto from their planetary considerations of our solar system?

My second and third concerns come after some reflection on my own education. My high school history teacher, certainly overqualified – with a PhD – to be teaching at a secondary school, taught me an importantly elegant definition: “culture, simply put, is just learned behaviour”. A major problem I have with the CBC horoscopes is that they’re published under the culture column of the life section. Beyond the potential placebo effect, what good are they in terms of societal cultural best practises for setting positive examples of permissible or acceptable behaviour?

Thirdly, reflecting even further back to primary school, during the health and physical education components of our curriculum, I vividly remember the anti-drug workshops. The takeaway message was that some drugs are viewed as gateway drugs. There exist drugs that, if regularly exposed to, can lead to other, often harder, drugs. Does astrology desensitize or normalize superstition? Does the popular and national exposure through CBC stimulate the exploration of possibly more dangerous superstitions?

I think publicly-funded superstition is scandalous for two, non-mutually exclusive, reasons; the national media losing its credibility and the potential gateway-drug effect.

I think it’s now appropriate to consider the wisdom of another personal hero of mine – who likewise I’d extend as being a true friend and hero of humanity like Epicurus and Emma Goldman.

Reflecting on the Chernobyl Nuclear disaster, considered one of the worst human-made disasters, Dr. Michael Crichton reminded us all of the potential public safety and health consequences from the broadcast of false, inaccurate or misleading information.

Dr. Crichton shared the disturbing conclusion of the later UN Report, which suggested that the most harm from the fallout came in the form of the psychological effects, as a result of inaccurate and grossly misleading information reported by various media outlets – including the CBC – that manifested as negative self-assessments of health, a belief in shortened life expectancy, a pervasively felt incapacity to take initiative and dependency on assistance from the state.

In his fearless 2005 testimony before the US Congress against the politicization of science, at which then-Senator Hillary Clinton was present but played no helpful part, Dr. Crichton advanced that the proper function of government is to set standards for the integrity of information: “In an information society, public safety depends on public information, only government can perform that task.”

In a time of so-called fake news, how can anyone be expected to know who to trust and what to believe if the main Canadian media source is currently the home for astrology and therefore perpetuating societal superstition? I therefore ask that members of the CBC carefully reflect on their code of conduct in order to restore public trust and regain mutual respect.

Both the CBC and Ethics Commissioner were reached for comment. When available, an update will be provided.

I’ll sign off with an appropriate song: Best of You by Foo Fighters

Is climate change becoming too normal?

A recent study suggests that we quickly get used to unusual weather, which has troubling implications for our ability to motivate people to support measures that will protect us from global climate change.  The study measured the literal remarkability of different temperatures by seeing how much comment they generated on Twitter. Hot and cold conditions both generated lots of posts, particularly if they were unusual for a particular place and time of year.    But temperatures quickly became unremarkable: after just a couple of years of strange temperatures, people stopped tweeting about them. The best estimate is that  people base their idea of normal weather on what happened in the last two to eight years.

Climate change gradually changes the weather people experience from year to year. Very large warming is projected for the 21st century in the absence of a comprehensive plan to save the planet.  But if people forget what weather was like eight years ago and more these unprecedented conditions won’t feel particularly unusual to people experiencing them.  Moreover, natural variability in the climate system means we could continue to be surprised by weather that seems cold, even when that “cold” weather is far warmer than the natural baseline.

The tale of the boiling frog has long been used to describe the dangers posed by change that happens slowly relative to people’s perception and memory. The apocryphal story compares a frog dropped into a pot of boiling water, who jumps out right away, to a frog placed in a pot of cold water that is gradually heated up. This frog never recognises the danger he is in and eventually boils to death. The risk is that slowly worsening environmental conditions lull us into a false sense of normalcy.

The findings suggest we may be at risk of becoming boiling frogs – but they don’t determine that fate. No one alive today remembers “pre-industrial” conditions, yet there are plenty of records we can use to give us the longer-term context critical for understanding climate change. We need to be aware of how our own perceptions of normal versus unusual weather might slip over time, and of the growing disconnect between those perceptions and true natural conditions 50 or 100 years ago.

 We need to keep the right perspective on the weather we are experiencing and recognise just how unusual things are in the historical or even geological context.

( based on New Scientist article 24 March 2019.  Journal reference: PNASDOI: 10.1073/pnas.1816541116.Frances Moore, the author, is an assistant professor of environmental science and policy at the University of California, Davis).

My comment: At the risk of being labelled a Jonah, climate change is going to result in mass migration and inevitable mass violence.  Climate change has already contributed to the Syrian war and the chronic instability in  North Africa and Central America.  Faced with an escalation of the current trends I forecast that eventually everyone, even the corrupt people with vested interests,  will “get it”.   It will be a matter of survival.  Not noticing minor changes in the weather will seem irrelevant to a world turned upside down, its people starving.

Emotion in the White House

The U.S Attorney general, William Barr has excused the wild behavior of the President by explaining, without a hint of humour or irony, that the President gets “emotional”.

Wow!  One of the frequent Republican accusations against women in charge of anything is that they are too “emotional” to be able to run whole countries or large companies.  It takes thoughtful, calm and knowledgeable people of male inclination to do that.  Hilary was accused of being a woman and therefore being too “emotional” to be President.  Can you imagine the field day her opponents would have had with her at the helm?  Every little thing that went wrong would be put down to her “unstable”, feminine disposition.

Of course, all this sexism is nonsense.  However, it seems that Mr. Barr has inadvertently given a good reason for demanding Trump’s resignation, not necessarily for collusion, obstruction or shady dealings but for being emotional.   Mr. Barr is clearly stating, as Attorney general, that Trump is unfit for his job.


The end of days for the family farm

Publicity for Blue Apron, a company selling pasture-raised, slow-growth, heirloom chickens direct to consumers as meal-kits, weekly if you want them, is a welcome development that  points up the disaster that is now ubiquitous factory farming,

In the Midwest, rural towns are being (have been) destroyed by huge corporations buying up land and building vast factory farms.   When rural Iowa was carved up for settlers in the 19th century, it was often divided into 160-acre lots. Four farms made a square mile, with a criss-cross of dead-straight roads marking the boundaries like a sprawling chessboard.

Now the family farms are disappearing  owing to collapsing commodity prices and the rise of factory farming. And with that has come a vast transfer in wealth, as farm profits are funneled into corporations, and a diminishing number of families own an increasing share of the land.   Rural communities have been hollowed out, and those left are reduced to growing corn and soya beans to sell to corporate buyers as feed for animals (or for ethanol).  In  industrial farming units, pigs, cows and chickens are crammed by the thousand into rows of barns. Many units are semi-automated, with feeding run by computer and animals watched by video, with periodic visits by workers who drive between several operations.  The US has about 250,000 factory farms of one kind or another. 

Corporations game the system by obtaining low-interest, federally guaranteed loans to build factories that then overproduce. They know the government will buy up the surplus to stabilise prices.  The industry uses money and influence to impose its will, pouring millions into lobbying state governments to change planning and environmental regulations in their favour.   The Obama administration promised reforms to benefit family farms, but is accused of never having delivered, which helps explain mid-West some of the  support for Donald Trump.

Along with family farms other businesses, such as seed merchants, vets, machinery suppliers, small abattoirs  etc  have disappeared –  a whole way of life.  If you want to work on a farm you have to work for a huge corporation, on their terms, and often is competition with illegal immigrants. The corporations  control everything.   (An edited version of a piece by Chris McGreal in The Observer. ©Guardian News & Media Ltd 2019, and carried by The Week, 30/3/2019).

If Epicureanism focuses upon a pleasant life, aside from cost, what pleasure is there in eating  green- washed, mass-produced factory chicken, the animals kept in dark cages and fed anti-biotics, all achieved with badly paid labour?  What on earth are we collectively thinking of?

“Climate change – an apology”

The following poem is excerpted from “ The Rueful Hippopotamus”, an anthology of light verse  by the present author, published by ByD Press and available on Amazon:

What will they say of us when we are gone,
When it dawns on them all that their grandparents knew
(As they wrestle with flooding, starvation and storms),
Of the turmoil their world would be struggling through?

What will they think of us (selfishly set
Upon motors and holidays, easily bought)
And the choking pollution discharged in the air
We contribute to blithely with scarcely a thought?

Will they wonder at pineapples flown from Hawaii
While the frost and the snow are still thick on the ground?
Fresh flowers from Colombia, well out of season,
At a cost to the planet, unseen but profound?

Will they say? Our grandparents, whom we still remember,
Knew that the pole-ice was melting away.
They heard the debates about currents and oceans,
But greeted each fact with a passive dismay.

They knew in their hearts that some real sacrifice
Was required, some remedial money and labour.
They said the right things, but still hoped against hope
That appropriate restraint would commence with their neighbour.

They worried a lot about hurricanes, storms,
And the lot of the seals and the few polar bears.
But they sighed with relief when the skeptics said “Whoa,
It won’t happen, (at least, not for fifty-odd years).”

Don’t worry, they said, keep the growth rolling on.
Keep spending and wasting, don’t take the full brunt.
The grand-kids will have to shape up or ship out;
For if it’s an issue it’s tough to confront.

We agree there’s a problem. Solutions are hard.
The science is sound and now fully attested.
But big money talks, we’re needing the income,
And the interests? Well, you can guess, they are vested.

Our grandchildren will say, “So the power plants belched on.
And at some point the balance just toppled and tipped,
Mother Nature triumphant is taking Her toll,
And our wings and our science are thwarted and clipped.

Now the sea levels rise and the lowlands are swamped.
There are millions of homeless of every race.
And nations once stable are riven with warfare
And death stalks the Earth at a gathering pace.

Fresh water’s a problem, high prices of food,
And flooding at unusual times of the year.
With business disrupted and jobs on the line,
People are nervous, distracted with fear.

Southern Europe’s becoming a desert with sand;
Its desperate people are trekking up north
Joined by North Africans, starving and sick,
Who’ll be turned back or halted at gunpoint henceforth.

Yes, we curse the short-sighted, the venal, the blind,
Who carelessly caused us this terrible plight,
Who lived comfortable lives in a state of denial
And whose gifts to the world were, in retrospect, slight.

Some were bought and created those bogus statistics;
They twisted the science, unconscionably lied.
Some bullied the serious people who warned them
And none had the courage and faith to decide.

Man will react, if at all, in a crisis,
When the ambitious and greedy have backs to the wall.
Now speeches and meetings are all we can offer.
I apologize, kids, for us all – to you all.

A plague on all their (British) houses

When asked which of the main British political parties they felt an affinity with, 19% of voters said the Tories, 15% Labour, and 3% the Lib Dems; 54% said none.    (Lord Ashcroft Polls/The Mail on Sunday,  April 2019).

The political class has betrayed the country, and the country knows it.  No wonder Epicurus disliked politics; they were only marginally better in his day.




From Seneca: on protecting our time

Seneca  commented on what is at stake when a person asks, not to mention demands, another’s time — an admonition that applies  to the incessant requests for meetings, for donations and the barrage of People Wanting Things:

“All those who call you to themselves draw you away from yourself.”

I am always surprised to see some people demanding the time of others and meeting an obliging response. Both sides know the reason why the time is asked for, but few pay attention to the time itself — as if nothing is being asked for and nothing given. They are trifling with life’s most precious commodity – time – an intangible thing, not open to inspection and therefore reckoned to be cheap — in fact, almost valueless.

Seneca suggests that protecting our time is essential self-care, and being profligate with it is  a dangerous form of self-neglect:

Nobody works out the value of time: people use it lavishly as if it cost nothing… We have to be more careful with this precious thing, which  will cease at some unknown point.

What has emerged as a major consumer of time is the email, the text message and peering every few minutes at your phone.  Huge numbers of messages arrive, unasked for.  Go to the gym, for instance, and most of the young people are gazing at their phones, rather than exercising.  You place an order with a company and straight away you start getting messages from them.  Mostly, you can ask them to stop, but some ignore your request and keep on asking for money, feed back, whatever.  Most irritating are election candidates half way across the Continent.  How they know about you is a mystery, but sharing your particulars with dozens of others, without your agreement, ends up  stealing your time and making you feel powerless and used.  There is no way you can donate to everyone (or even find them on the map).

Self-care means quiet, reflective time for yourself.  These days  I turn to drawing, which is totally absorbing and blessedly relaxing.  But there are many ways of tuning out.  Epicurus chose his garden.


The bright side of Brexit

To The Times

A visibly noticeable benefit of Brexit is that we will be able to have whiter teeth. The problem lies with EU bureaucracy. The EU allows less than 0.1% of hydrogen peroxide in over-the-counter products, which means that their effectiveness is low. In America, up to 10% is considered safe, and Americans have whiter teeth. A further benefit of a post-Brexit move to allow effective home whitening kits would be to reduce the high income inequality caused by dentists charging high fees for whitening while lobbying Brussels to maintain the low concentration limit for home products.

John O’Keeffe, London. (The Week. 2 Mar 2019)

And white teeth are the only benefit I can think of in this extraordinary example of casual self-harm, called Brexit.

Intimacy coordinators

In the old days society seemed to survive without endless depictions of bogus, badly presented sex in every movie or play.  Things were more subtle. You were given the hint, and that hint was sufficient to get across the idea that the couple on the screen would be having sex, but off-screen. It was left to the imagination, arguably more fun and, I would argue, more titillating (not that I need it personally!) Nowadays you cannot watch a Netflix movie without a sex scene, each instance very similar to the last, begging the question,”That looks very awkward.  Can  one really do that in real life and enjoy it?”

It seems that the market for sex scenes is so big that studios are employing “intimacy coordinators”.  These people try to assuage the anxiety of young female actors, who are naturally worried that images of them topless, and pretending to indulge in oral sex, will be there on the internet for the rest of their lives.  Intimacy coordinators have arrived owing to heightened Me-too concerns about consent, harassment and sexual assault, and to deal with the vulnerability of actors in the face of the market for ever more  explicit sex scenes.  It has to be said that some actors will do anything they are told to attract viewers and to make more money, but these must be in the minority.

The sad fact is that huge numbers of young American men have no girlfriends and are having no sex.  Is there a link here with the numbers of movies being produced with sex, if not porn, used by young men to substitute for tender, loving relationships?

There is no evidence about the marital status of Epicurus, but since he believed that pleasure was a major objective  in life, one assumes that he would look askance at the plethora of sex scenes in movies, with or without intimacy coordinators.  He would advocate loving marriage. (genders irrelevant), single-minded devotion, and a dedication to making one another truly happy.  There is little in the world more wonderful and exhilarating than that, if you can achieve it.


A very short introduction on the 20th

Hi, I’m Oscar. I’ve recently connected with this blog’s founder, Robert Hanrott, and accepted his invitation to be a regular contributor on Epicurus Today.

My goal here is to produce weekly content that is both digestible (i.e., brief) and thought-provoking. That said, I also aim to contribute more lengthy – in-depth – essays on a monthly basis.

About me: I’m a student. I’m multilingual. I love books and I play musical instruments…and yada yada yada and blah blah blah – most importantly, I’m a work in-progress. Success for me, is if today I’m better than who I was yesterday; and if tomorrow I’m better than who I am today. I try my best to not miss an opportunity to do good and resist opportunities to do bad.

I first came under direct Epicurean influence early into high school, by the blessing of my then-girlfriend – who thought that I think a lot and rather actively encouraged it by getting me into the book 100 Essential Thinkers by Philip Stokes. Therein was my first exposure to Epicurus, the sage himself. It was truly a serendipitous encounter because we were rushing through a nearby shopping mall – as a short-cut – and chanced upon the book as it caught my attention and I suddenly – if not abruptly – stopped to investigate more closely and point it out to her. This was the exact opposite of a blessing-in-disguise – it was sober and disguise free – a chance blessing, I’m so grateful happened to me. Later it was all the more remarkable, to finally connect the dots and realize just how much earlier I was under an Epicurean influence.  It seems that my whole childhood through to my adolescence was under, albeit indirect, Epicurean influence.  Between my chores and paper route job duties I was able receive despite not having cable, on my earlier black & white television and later colour television set, clear over-the-air broadcast coverage of the public channel CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) which aired my to-this-day favourite show The Nature of Things with David Suzuki, a show inspired by Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura and one of my greatest joys growing up.

Like with many things in life, finding a suitable spot online for advancing the legacy of Epicurus with forward thinking contemporaries, takes some searching around and experimenting. I’m happy to have found as kind a host as Robert Hanrott and landed with the opportunity to contribute to that end on Epicurus Today.

I’ll leave you with a song: Star Treatment by Arctic Monkeys


Happy Twentieth! 🙂

Next Time: Publicly-Funded Superstition

Reflections on morality

The idea that you cannot have a “moral compass” without religion is, in my opinion, mistaken.  Morality is the set of principles adopted by the human race, from time to time and from place to place, to allow us to live together in harmony.  Moses may have theatrically produced the Ten Commandments from the mountain top, but for the majority of human beings morality is common sense.  It comes naturally to the sensitive person who wants to get along in life, who wants to please and have friends, who wants to avoid violence, anxiety and strife.  I agree, however,  that sending kids to Sunday school can do little harm and maybe some good.

I have a hypothesis (not very profound):  consideration for others and pure-self-interested morality works on a Bell curve principle.  At one end are the saints, not necessarily religious and rather few.  In the middle, the great majority, are those who instinctively adopt a sense of common morals (no murder, theft, assault; look after the old, succor the young etc).  On the far side, however, are the mentally challenged, the bullies, the paranoid, the violent, the selfish and chronically anti-social, not to mention the attention- seekers.   A lifetime of Sunday school, lectures and homilies are going to have no effect, because they were born this way.  They are sociopaths, and may be best put somewhere where trained people can look after them.

All religious people bring up Stalin and Hitler to illustrate the immorality of godless-ness.  In my opinion it is irrelevant.   Hitler was born in Austria and claimed, I believe as late as 1943, to be a devout Catholic.   The crimes of Stalin had little to do with Marxism-Leninism.  The fellow was a cruel murderer and paranoid control freak.  Given turmoil and revolution these people tend to turn up on top.  He was interested in power, not ideology.  His attitude to ideology was dismissive.  If nothing else he was pragmatic.  No, you cannot use these two “gentlemen”.

Let me try Philip II of Spain and his successors on you.  Philip was known as a devout Catholic, immersed in the morality of the church, in a Court so boringly religious and moralistic that even the papal nuncios were taken aback.   But he was responsible for untold massacres, rapes, and torture, all supervised, or at least consented to, by attendant priests, mostly Jesuit.   (No, I won’t mention the inquisition, Galileo, the graft and corruption of pre-Reformation Popes.  It is too embarrassing).

It is fair to raise the issue of China.  Those who have close dealings with Chinese businessmen report that there is an unusual incidence of  lying, cheating and corruption in business, government and industry, and that our concept of ethics and morality does not resonate there (in an earlier draft of these comments I put it more harshly).

If true, is this down to Communism and godlessness, which only took over less than 60 years ago?   Perhaps.  The ultra-right would like to blame Communism and the Cultural Revolution.  But then you have to remember the effects of the Chinese revolution, social turmoil, Mao (another paranoid power-crazed monster), and the huge problems caused by unprecedented movement from village to faceless city.  The truth may be that in a small village, where everyone knows one another, the elders keep the lid on disruptive behaviour.  In the mega-cities people  have no roots,  no friends and no anchors.  it’s  every man for himself.   In situations like this morals come second to survival.  I have no idea what China was like before the Communists took over.  Maybe it has always been a free-for-all there.

Morals preceded religion, at least they preceded Christianity. The Christians adopted the moral code it found at the time and many practices from the pagans (who were fun guys!), and added heaven and hell,  fire and damnation, to frighten us into conformity with State and church thinking.  Christianity, for instance, started off absolutely opposed to war, but once it became the official religion, fully supported the Emperors in their vicious wars of dominion.  Christian emperors massacred as many harmless civilians as non-Christians.   Morality had nothing to do with it.  Power was the driver.

I take issue with  the nonsense idea, espoused by the Christian Right, that atheists are immoral.  On the contrary, the atheists I know are humane, decent, kind, thoughtful and moral.  The fact is, some people are good and others are not so good.  Among the “moral” Christians there are some really good people who lead a fine moral life while still retaining a sense of humour and managing to enjoy it all (some members of my own family fall into this category).  On the other hand the ranks of the Christians appear to contain as many pornographers, wife-beaters, philanderers and thieves as elsewhere.

Every man has the ability to choose his road in life. The idea that the Intelligent Designer has fore-ordained our roles in the world is bunkum.  The difference between the Christian right and  Epicureans is that we  think for ourselves and are relatively rational (or try to be).  We eschew the fear (or try to) that is fostered by the Church and governments. Meanwhile, as individuals, we can be good and bad, moral and immoral like everyone else. If American Christians think they represent “morality”, may they answer for their presumption in their heaven (that might prove a disappointment, but I can no more prove its existence or non-existence than they can).  Up the moral minority!


Myths about America , Part 2

Myth #2: Good governance entails fiscal responsibility.

This is one of the hoariest shibboleths of modern American politics: feckless Democrats tax and spend; sober Republicans stand for balanced budgets. So President Ronald Reagan claimed, en route to racking up the massive deficits that transformed the United States from the world’s number one creditor into its biggest debtor. George W. Bush doubled down on Reagan’s promise. Yet during his presidency, deficits skyrocketed, eventually exceeding a trillion dollars per annum. No apologies were forthcoming. “Deficits don’t matter,” his vice president announced.

Then along came Trump. Reciting the standard Republican catechism, he vowed not only to balance the budget but to pay off the entire national debt within eight years. It was going to be a cinch. Instead, the projected deficit in the current fiscal year will once again top a cool trillion dollars while heading skywards. The media took brief note — and moved on.

The truth is that both parties are more than comfortable with red ink. As charged, the Democrats are indeed the party of tax and spend. Yet the GOP is the party of spend-at-least-as-much (especially on the Pentagon) while offering massive tax cuts to the rich.  

(Andrew Bacevich writes for TomDispatch) 

I’m not so naive as to believe that the nation’s budgetary income and expenditure should be equally balanced, or that there should be an annual surplus for years on end.   Normally one would expect that in years of growth there would be a surplus, and that in years of recession ,or low growth, the government will borrow.  You can have a small-ish deficit if the economy is growing in real terms.  But it is highly unusual to have the current situation where the economy is doing well and unemployment is low, and the country is running on a massive deficit.  This is mainly because of the tax cuts for corporations and the rich, who are collectively paying less tax than ever.  Notwithstanding that indebtedness is rising alarmingly.  I suppose the idea is that the next (Democrat) government will be blamed for the outcome in the sordid game of skewering your opposition, which is composed of your fellow citizens.  This is not patriotic, it is not  Epicurean, and it is not wise.

Myths about America

Myth #1: The purpose of government is to advance the common good.

In modern American politics, the concept of the common good no longer has any practical meaning. It hasn’t for decades. The phrase might work for ceremonial occasions — inaugural addresses, prayer breakfasts, that sort of thing — but finds little application in the actual business of governing.

When did politics at the national level become a zero-sum game? Was it during Richard Nixon’s presidency? Bill Clinton’s? While the question may be of academic interest, more pertinent is the fact that, with Trump in the White House, there is no need to pretend otherwise. Indeed, Trump’s popularity with his “base” stems in part from his candid depiction of his political adversaries not as a loyal opposition but an enemy force. Trump’s critics return the favor: their loathing for the president and — now that Trump’s generals are gone — anyone in his employ knows no bounds.

It’s the Mitch McConnell Rule elevated to the status of dogma: If your side wins, mine loses. Therefore, nothing is more important than my side winning. Compromise is for wusses. (Andrew Bacevich in TomDispatch. His most recent book is “Twilight of the American Century”, published by the University of Notre Dame Press)

The deliberate and knowing promotion of division, racism and hatred of your fellow citizens is anti-Epicurean.  Epicurus, were he alive to day, would probably be discovered in Canada, having fled a country where ataraxia and polite debate are for wimps, wimps who are stupid enough to have served their country in the military or the civil service, and are glad to give something back to the land they were born in.

Cuckoos in the nest

The practice of “cuckooing” – victims’ homes being taken over by gangs as bases for illegal activity – is now estimated to affect thousands of people across the UK. Urban dealers typically befriend vulnerable people in rural and coastal towns, offering drugs to gain their trust. Victims often include those who are addicted, or who have mental-health issues, or both, although elderly people, sex workers, single mothers and those in poverty are also at risk. One common scenario is that a drug user gets into debt, and is forced to let a gang member move in, using their home to store, process and sell drugs.

In 2017, three-quarters of police forces in England and Wales documented evidence of cuckooing related to county lines activity ( see below for explanation) alongside tales of violence and child and sexual exploitation. For those caught up in it the reality can be horrendous: “One chap started taking drugs… then county lines started and his house got taken over,” said Superintendent Caroline Naughton of Dorset police. “In the past four years, he has had his teeth pulled out and been beaten up really badly. It starts as a friendly relationship.” But the “violence” soon follows.  (The Week 13 Feb 2018)

In the United Kingdom, the term “county lines” is a neologism referring to the practice of using children to traffic drugs into rural areas.  A 2019 estimate by the National Crime Agency estimated the total turnover of all county lines activities throughout the UK as about £500 million.

Key facts about illegal drug use in the UK

Drug misuse related hospital admissions (England)

  • There were 7,545 hospital admissions with a primary diagnosis of drug-related mental health and behavioural disorders, 12 per cent higher than 2006/07.
  • There were 14,053 hospital admissions with a primary diagnosis of poisoning by illicit drugs, 40 per cent more than 2006/07.

Deaths related to drug misuse (England and Wales)

  • In 2016 there were 2,593 registered deaths in England and Wales related to drug misuse. This is an increase of 5 per cent on 2015 and 58 per cent higher than 2006. Deaths related to drug misuse are at their highest level since comparable records began in 1993

Drug use among adults (England and Wales)

  • In 2016/17, around 1 in 12 (8.5 per cent) adults aged 16 to 59 in England and Wales had taken an illicit drug in the last year, compared with 10.1 per cent in 2007

Drug use among children (England)

  • In 2016, 24 per cent of pupils reported they had ever taken drugs., compared to 15 per cent in 2014.


Pax Americana under threat

Back in 2001, when George W. Bush came to power, he and the neocons could see nothing standing in their way.  There was a  weakened and impoverished Russia (still with its nuclear arsenal more or less intact).  There was a Communist-gone-capitalist China focused on its own growth and little else. And there were a set of other potential enemies, “rogue powers” as they were dubbed, so pathetic that not one of them could, under any circumstances, be called “great.”

In 2002, in fact, three of them — Iraq, Iran, and North Korea — had to be cobbled together into an “axis of evil”  to create an adequate enemy, and to offer an excuse for the Bush administration to act preemptively. It seemed obvious then that all three of them would go down before the military and economic power of the US  (even if, as it happened, two of them didn’t).

It seemed as if the United States was the single, unrivaled world power,  even after the terror attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001.   The National Security Strategy of that year was expressed as follows: “Our forces will be strong enough to dissuade potential adversaries from pursuing a military build-up in hopes of surpassing, or equaling, the power of the United States.” Anywhere on the planet, ever, In February 2001,  Charles Krauthammer, a  neocon, wrote in the Washington Post, “America is no mere international citizen. It is the dominant power in the world, more dominant than any since Rome. Accordingly, America is in a position to reshape norms, alter expectations, and create new realities. How? By unapologetic and implacable demonstrations of will.”.  ( Tomgram 14 Feb 2019).

This was all a delusion.  Iraq and Afghanistan have shown that military power alone doesn’t do the job against dedicated and ideological insurgencies – diplomacy is the other indispensable activity, and the US government has done its diplomacy ineffectively.   Since then any number of bush fires (forgive the pun) have meant that US forces have had to be deployed to “keep the peace” in multiple countries, and no one is even pretending there has been a victory – anywhere.  It is clear now that China is catching up technologically, showing, unfortunately, what can be achieved  by an intelligent autocrat.  China could be the dominant world power within 25 years.  Untold amounts of money, lavished on the Pentagon, have not given us peace .

Epicurus , I believe, surveying this dismal scene, would point out that empires or hegemonies often collapse because they run out of money conducting useless wars, cutting “domestic programs” to pay for them .  The US used to be greatly admired throughout the world, but no longer has the “big idea” that is almost universally admired.  From  outside, the US has given up on democracy and any pretense at economic fairness and is (metaphorically) thrashing around, bashing its head militarily against brick walls, while pandering to the rich.   This no longer works.  As we confront China, stop the bashing!  Concentrate on putting our own democracy in order (it isn’t in order at the moment), then think about the uses of “soft power”: generosity, human rights, fair voting for all, and generosity and humane behavior  at home and abroad.


Something to make you smile

This notice can now be found in all French churches:

En entrant dans cette église, il est possible que vous entendiez l’appel de Dieu.
Par contre, il n’est pas susceptible de vous contacter par téléphone.
Merci d’avoir éteint votre téléphone.
Si vous souhaitez parler à Dieu, entrez, choisissez un endroit tranquille et parle lui.
Si vous souhaitez le voir, envoyez-lui un SMS en conduisant.

It is possible that on entering this church, you may hear the Call of God.
On the other hand, it is not likely that he will contact you by phone.
Thank you for turning off your phone.
If you would like to talk to God, come in, choose a quiet place, and talk to him.
If you would like to see him, send him a text while driving.